It should come as no surprise that when I hear the words of Psalm 23, I am immediately transported back to Ireland, as my group traveled daily throughout that beautiful countryside; lush and green, and FULL of sheep. One of the most amazing things about this psalm is its ability to span time and space, person and place so that its meaning and the images it evokes are recognized and known so widely. How many of us know this psalm by heart? How many of us have heard it used at a funeral in the last year or so? I personally use Psalm 23 in at least 80% of the funeral services I officiate, often at the request of the family involved. Even though the culture and vocation reflected and described in the verses are no longer common circumstances in daily life, the 23rd psalm continues in popularity; comforting vast numbers of folks at often what is their darkest hour. How many of us know a shepherd these days? How many of us love this psalm? I think my heart rate actually slows down and I breathe more deeply as I read or speak its words. It’s a great passage!
But, because it is so familiar, and because we each have specific associations or memories when we encounter it, it becomes challenging to try to hear it in a fresh way. I am sure that God still wants to speak deeply and intimately to each of us through these phrases. So, my goal is to offer us opportunities this morning where we can listen anew to the words and meanings; and gain an increased knowledge and appreciation of the divine through them. As bible commentator J. Clinton McCann, Jr. states : “To be sure, it is appropriate that Psalm 23 be read and heard in the midst of death and dying. It may be more important, however, that this psalm be read and heard as a psalm about living, for it puts daily activities, such as eating, drinking, and seeking security, in a radically God-centered perspective that challenges our usual way of thinking.”
There are a couple of things that fell important to share with you that I learned or remembered this time as I studied this passage. I don’t think we need to do a complete word by word study of the text, but rather I want to point out a few key ideas that will enhance our consideration of the whole psalm.
I think we need to begin by exploring who a shepherd is and what a shepherd does…
A shepherd takes care of sheep, right? Simple, but not easy, for this work encompasses all the parts of a sheep’s life; birthing, feeding, protecting, guiding, healing, finding, shearing, and so on. This is a 24/7 role; and in this psalm it is the Lord—or God—who fills it. Always, continually, forever. Today, it’s easy to make the connection to mothering; that mothering and shepherding are quite similar. “Psalm 23 plainly reveals a God who loves and cares for God’s children like one who has carried a child in her very womb cares for that child.” So first off, this important foundational proclamation: God is our shepherd, our mother.
And then, if we go to the end of Psalm 23, we read the familiar “surely goodness and mercy will FOLLOW me all the days of my life…” Many translations do employ the verb “follow”, but the Hebrew verb has the more active sense of “pursue”. Thus God is in active pursuit of the Psalmist! For me, to pursue implies a relentless following after that
perseveres through all of life’s ups and downs. We, friends are CHASED by the God who created, and then endlessly loves each one of us.
Finally, most importantly, the psalm proclaims that GOD IS THE ONLY NECESSITY OF LIFE! “I shall not want” can be translated as a positive statement “I have everything I need”. This friends is truth; a radical truth for those of us who live in a culture that teaches people to want everything. However, if we want to take psalm 23 as a primary tenet for our life, living into the reality that God will give us all we need is TRUTH. That sounds so quaint and naïve; can that really work?! Friends; the truth is, we DON’T CONTROL ANYTHING. God, and Only God—the One who is gracious and kind and caring—ALWAYS provides just exactly what we need. “Thus to make Psalm 23 our own is a profoundly radical affirmation that transforms our lives and our world.”
As we work to get our heads and hearts around that this week, this lifetime—and I do challenge you to seriously consider this psalm and take on its message as a way of life—there are a couple of new ways to hear Psalm 23 that provided openings for me as I prepared for this message that I think you will also appreciate.
The first one is on the back of your bulletin. Isaac Watts’ version conveys so clearly for me the implicit trust that is the only appropriate response we humans have to God’s radical, amazingly abundant shepherding. This is never more evident than in the final stanza:
“There I would find a settled rest, While others go and come; No more a stranger, nor a guest, but like a child at home.” Our best, our only place in God’s world is as a child,
whose home is with the Parent, living in faith and hope that all will be provided as needed—and where we are the most ourselves, doing what we were born to do.
Another insightful perspective I was shown –which seemed especially appropriate for us here this morning—was the view of Psalm 23 in its canonical context. In other words, in the position it holds in the order of all the psalms, coming immediately after Psalm 22. You remember Psalm 22 don’t you? It’s the one that the gospels report Jesus uttered from the cross. “My God, my God why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest…do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help….” Psalm 22 is a lament; a cry to God from one who is in distress – who has experienced the worst that life could throw at somebody. Commentators speak to the shared vocabulary and concepts of the 22nd and 23rd Psalm, thus strengthening their connection. “In psalm 22 however, the psalmist accuses God of being far away and not answering the psalmist’s cry for help; of being silent when those around mock and shake their heads; of paying no heed when bulls and lions and dogs and evildoers surround; and of ignoring the fact that the psalmist’s body is shriveled and emaciated.” Where is God when terrible things—yes even and especially death comes? When there are seemingly no answers for what has happened? If, in fact, psalm 23 is written as a response to the disasters and pain of 22, then God IS found… even; especially as “I walk through the valleys of the shadow of death”. Reading Psalm 23 as a word of trust in answer to the heartfelt lament of Psalm 22 can add a new dimension of understanding to both psalms—and an increased sense of God’s presence and intentions.
Finally, I want to share a musical version of Psalm 23. This is by Bobby McFerrin of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” fame. (See post of this below) It was too good not to share, one reason being that it was written to honor McFerrin’s mother. You will become aware that through this arrangement, we are compelled to sit longer with this overly familiar psalm; to SLOW DOWN and LISTEN as we engage with the words. Notice if you can, where the musical climax is– it happens early– and what its message is. Hopefully, it will also be clear that confidence and trust are ultimately the end result of the described experience.
Some queries to take with us into the week:
Sheep and Shepherds; mothers and children–what experiences do you have that bring the images in the 23rd psalm alive?
When has hearing or reading the 23rd psalm been especially meaningful in your walk of faith?
How might we rely more closely on and live into the truth that “God is all I need”?
How and where are hope and trust in the divine seen and experienced in your daily life?